I’m a rabbi. Lots of my friends are rabbis. Here’s a story that I’ve heard over and over again from so, so many of them. As part of their pastoral training, they find themselves in a hospital, visiting patients to offer whatever support they can.
Sooner or later, it happens. They are witness to a spiritual leader from another faith tradition turning up to do ostensibly the same job as them, but with a big difference. When attending to someone who is suffering, this amazing Gentile will hold the hand of the patient and/or family members, and start praying with them with a clarity and power that is tangibly felt by all present. The words they say are not a proscribed formula, they simply come to them in this moment of sincerity and openness.
My friends and colleagues who report this moment invariably acknowledge that all their many years of Jewish practice, regular synagogue attendance and rabbinical training never included a moment like this: a moment of simple, heartfelt, spontaneous prayer.
And yet, prayer of this kind is absolutely central to our own tradition of spiritual practice. And I’m not just thinking of the Chasidic Masters, such as Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, who emphasized the practice of speaking to G!d every day in our own words.
There are countless stories from the Tanach (Hebrew Bible) and our commentaries on it, where people simply pour out their hearts to the Source of life. It is ironic that many of the rules concerning our prayer services were derived from these stories, as these very rules have often contributed to our losing touch with the original impulse they were attempting to protect. The scaffolding of law, all too often, has replaced the building of spirit it was intended to support.
One key example, which the Talmud draws upon to derive several key rules about our prayers, comes at the start of the book of Samuel. Hannah, a brokenhearted and barren woman, prays so fervently that Eli, a male authority figure in charge of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), disrespectfully accuses her of being drunk. Eventually, after Hannah explains herself, he realizes his mistake, and kindly prays that her prayers for motherhood be answered. When this happens, and Hannah wishes to thank G!d, she does so in her own words.
When Maimonides codifies the laws of prayer, he explains that the words of our prayers were only fixed in order to help us continue to pray in an appropriate way, after we were exiled from our homeland and our mother tongue became strange to us. Those words that we find in the Siddur (prayerbook) were intended to preserve and deepen our prayer-life, but the external form all too easily becomes a substitute for the inner experience.
In many of our communities, schools and summer camps, prayer is viewed as an insurmountable challenge, a lose-lose game. All too often, it is either ignored, or permitted to continue in a dry, insipid form that leaves many participants feeling bored or alienated.
It really need not be this way. Here are a few simple suggestions for those individuals and communities interested in trying something different:
- Start by becoming more conscious of where you are at. What is going on for you right now? What are you feeling or thinking? What is on your heart or mind? What is energy level, your mood, your state of being? The more fully we can experience ourselves in each moment, or the more present we can be, the more engaged we can be with prayer.
- Make space for silence. Silence allows us to listen to what actually is, the truths of life that have not yet, and perhaps cannot, be squeezed into language. Perhaps that is why the Psalmist says, “To You, silence is praise.”
- Less is more. As the great Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Aruch) says, sometimes we just need less words. Successive generations have added their beautiful contributions to our liturgy, and every word is profound and meaningful, but we cannot truly appreciate the words if we are simply overwhelmed by their sheer quantity. When you are in touch with yourself, when there is silent space for whatever needs to arise, it becomes more clear what we actually need to express.
- When we are reciting a fixed liturgy, we can easily default to our usual task-oriented state of mind and being. Saying all the words becomes one more item on our to-do list. To counter this, try viewing each word, phrase or section of the liturgy as an invitation for growth or healing in a specific area. Perhaps this word or phrase is inviting us to check in with, or to cultivate a particular emotion or character trait. Perhaps it is a mirror, reflecting our current thoughts and feelings about some aspect of our inner or outer lives. Perhaps if we listen to our inner response to the deeper meaning behind the words, we might be moved to write, to draw, to paint, to dance, to sing – perhaps even to pray! If we return regularly to these practices, we will experience meaningful growth, just as surely as if we train physical muscles with diligence and consistency.
This is a subject very dear to my heart which I have been researching, teaching and practicing for many years. If you would like to explore Jewish prayer as a series of spiritual practices for growth and healing, please join our community for this free online class on Transformative Prayer: A Step by Step Guide, or simply be in touch.